U.S. Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit
Products Liability — MTBEs in Gasoline
Clean Air Act Preemption — Standing
In re. MTBE Prods. Liability Litig.
10-4135-cv(L); 10-4329-cv (XAP)
Judges Parker, Hall and Carney
Background: After a lengthy trial, the district court awarded the City of New York and others a $104.69 million judgment against the defendants Exxon Mobil. The jury found Exxon liable under tort law for contaminating City-owned wells in Queens by its release of methyl tertiary butyl ether, a chemical used by Exxon as a gasoline additive from the mid-1980s through the mid-2000s. New York State had banned MTBE’s use in 2004. On appeal, Exxon argued that the City’s common law claims were preempted by the federal Clean Air Act, which required the use of MTBEs during the relevant time period. Further, Exxon argued that because the jury projected MTBE levels equal to the State’s maximum contaminant level, the City’s injury was not legally cognizable, nor was it ripe for adjudication.
Ruling: The Second Circuit affirmed. The court found, inter alia, that the Clean Air Act Amendments of 1990 did not require the use of MTBE in gasoline. Further, the court found that even if the defendant had no safer, feasible alternative to MTBE, the jury did not impose liability solely because of the chemical’s use. The jury found the defendant liable for engaging in tortious conduct in preventing and cleaning up gasoline spills. Therefore, the jury’s verdict is not in conflict with the Clean Air Act. The Second Circuit found that the plaintiffs had standing as they suffered an injury in fact, even if the alleged contamination did not exceed the maximum contaminant level.
Paul D. Clement of Bancroft PLLC for the defendants-appellants-cross-appellees; Paul M. Smith of Jenner & Block for the plaintiffs-appellees-cross-appellants